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Who knew? There is a global helium deficiency – and it can run more than balloons

Without the southwestern Saskatchewan's grandeur, a solution to a small discussed problem arises – a gap in the global helium supply chain.

In recent years, as fear of a helium deficiency, prospectors have traveled to the Canadian heartland and drilled deep into the earth in search of helium; and at least one company there has already begun to commercially produce gas.

Party City is just the tip of the iceberg

Nicholas Snyder, CEO of North America Helium

The increases of a helium clamp came into focus earlier this month when the New Jersey-based Party City announced it had raised prices in certain categories of balloon ahead of "helium headwinds." Its chief executive said "mother nature" would determine if there is enough helium to meet the company's demand and he denied if prices would ever come down.

People go out of a Party City store with balloons on in Miami, Florida. Party City announced that it will close 45 stores in 2019 due to a global helium shortage.

Raedle / Getty Images

Party balloons, however, represent only a small percentage of the helium market; and its use in magnetic resonance imaging or MRI, machines, space exploration, semiconductors, and other engineering applications has raised wider fears that a price spike might interfere more with the sale of balloons – and Instagram and other social media like balloons form essential backgrounds.

"Party City is just the tip of the iceberg," said Nicholas Snyder, president of North America Helium, who shares his time between New York and Calgary, and whose company has investigated in Saskatchewan near the Montana border.

Snyder said his company's goal is to start commercial helium production within two years. He claimed that his company has discovered the first new helium fields for several decades and has the ambition to start producing about one percent of the global supply within two years and gradually ramp it up.

Snyder's estimated company has spent tens of millions of dollars on exploration already and will spend tens of millions more on building a factory and future exploration.

"We have really focused on not just a deposit or a field, but a long-term helium production company in Canada," he said.

We were the first crazy people to point a hole in the ground for helium's sake

Jeff Vogt, CEO of Richmond, Virginia-based Weil Resources Group

His claim to be the first of anything-helium-related in Saskatchewan, of course, is not undisputed.

"We were the first crazy people to point a hole in the ground for helium's sake," said Jeff Vogt, director of Richmond, Virginia-based Weil Resources Group, who began producing a small amount of commercial helium near Mankota, Saskatchewan 2016.

Now he is exploring his company in Alberta.

Although helium is not exactly scarce, it is generally a by-product of natural gas or liquid natural gas production, and its value compared to these raw materials is small.

"I've heard it described it as the flea on the dog's tip," said Phil Kornbluth, of Kornbluth Helium Consulting, a market analyst sitting on North America's helium board. "It's not a big company."

He estimated that the current market size is now $ 6 billion after prices pushed up dramatically in 2019.

Still, with the largest production tied to other gases, supply cannot easily be dropped to meet demand, and Kornbluth said the market is currently deficient.

Goodyear released helium out of the last of its fabulous fleet of blimps in 2017.

AP Photo / Eric Risberg, Fil

"I have not heard of any semiconductor laboratories being short-circuited or rocket launches being shut down," says Kornbluth, but he has added that prices are up and not all customers get their full distribution.

Much of the price increase is due to the fact that the US Federal Government has sold down a stock that was originally started in the early 20th century, when blimps were still being used more widely.

Snyder said his company has sold helium stocks at prices in excess of $ 500 per thousand cubic feet, nearly 80 percent higher than the reported US $ 280 price for the latest US federal government auction.

Both Snyder and Vogt describe their quest to find and produce helium in almost mythical terms: Gravity cannot stick to it. Once released into the atmosphere, it is gone forever.

"It's about the geological capture of a molecule that otherwise flows up to the sun," Vogt said.

The members of the party store industry say that it is easy to understand why helium is kept so much.

"Balloons are the fastest, cheapest and most colorful way to decorate a room," said Mel Grevler, founder of Party City Supply Depot Ltd, a 12,000-square-foot store in Thornhill, Ontario.

So far, Grevler says he has been able to avoid walking the price of balloons by locking in a contract for helium several years ago when fear of shortage first arose.

Asking what would happen if helium became too expensive for balloons, Grevler does not jump over a stroke.

"It would be a crisis," he replied.

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